Gambetta

1  5

gambetta

May, 1871
San Sebastián, Spain

For Léon Gambetta, San Sebastián is less a place of exile than one of convalescence. He is exhausted in body and sick in soul, but San Sebastián, with its horsehoe-shaped bay and golden beaches is pleasing to the eye, almost idyllic.  Too, the news from France is slow to arrive here – a small mercy, but Léon will cling to what mercies he can. The past year has been devastating, for him, and for his country. He walks the beaches of San Sebastián daily, as a recovering invalid should, but the sea breezes provide little balm for his spirit.

France had not been ready for war with Bismarck’s newly-united Prussia. They had not been prepared for such a string of defeats, and the siege of Paris had come as a horrible shock to a city that had not been under threat from external forces since the time of the Emperor’s grandfather.

(The Emperor was gone now, replaced by a Republic, at Léon’s own instigation. He could not regret that; the younger Napoleon did not have his namesake’s genius for strategy, and France did not need another royal house.)

Léon himself had left Paris by balloon during the siege when it became clear that the war could not be directed through the Prussian blockade. In his mind’s eye he can still see the city spread out below him like a map, with Haussmann’s broad avenues and public parks enclosed by Thiers’ wall. Starvation and smallpox are not visible from balloon-height, and Léon could have wept at the beauty of the city below.

But there was no time for weeping. Taking Tours as his seat of government, Léon had quickly raised an army to relieve the capital, and for a while it looked as though this manoeuvre might succeed. Alas, the shameful surrender of Metz had put an end to that hope. Within a few months, France herself had surrendered, William of Prussia had declared himself the Emperor of the new German Empire, and Gambetta had retreated to Spain in disgust.

And now, it seems, the Communards have taken over the city of Paris – a ghastly madness blighting what remains of his poor France. There is little that Léon can do about this. There would be little he could do even if he were in Paris. Paris has once more descended into revolutionary fervour, and is in no mood for any sort of moderate government.

There is also nothing to be gained by dwelling on it. Léon returns the letter to his pocket and looks out to sea. He has long become accustomed to the curious flatness of vision that came with the loss of his right eye, but the effect adds a pleasing absurdity when watching the horizon, with boats popping up like puppets from beneath a screen. But the horizon today is empty of ships, and the bay itself is populated only by a handful of fishing boats. He watches them for a while, then turns to walk back to his hotel.

A man has appeared on his blind side while he was lost in his thoughts, and Léon nearly collides with him. He steps back quickly, offering a quick apology in Basque, but the man addresses him in French.

“Léon Gambetta, will you walk with me? I have been seeking you.” His eyes are piercingly blue, and very serious. “Your country needs you.”

Léon feels his eyebrows go up. “That is not the impression I had received,” he replies, politely. The election of Thiers in February still stings.

The man smiles. “Nevertheless, it is so. Austria is trying to invade Paris, and you are the only man who can prevent it.”

Léon’s heart thumps heavily in his chest. “France has no quarrel with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Why would they invade us?” He looks at the man narrowly. He is tall and fair, with a laborer’s build. “And how do you know? Are you Austrian?”

The other man’s smile does not fade. “No. My name is Michael, and I love Paris as much as you do. But in 1914 Austria and Germany will be allied against France, and Paris will once again be in danger. I believe that you are the man who can save it.”

Léon’s heart is still beating too hard. The man seems straightforward, but his words make no sense. “Am I dreaming?” he wonders aloud.

“Neither dreaming, nor dying, nor in any other desperate state. You could not save France in 1870, though you did everything you could. But you can save Paris in the future, if you are willing, and in so doing, keep France alive for others to save in years to come. Will you come with me?” The man holds out his hand.

If this is a dream, it is one that Léon is prepared to embrace. If he is dying, it will make no difference. And if it is real… he is not the man to turn his back when his country calls him.

He takes the other man’s hand. “I will.”

u-boat-black-silhouette

January, 1915
Aboard the Maria Theresia

The halls are alive with the sound of men’s voices, and Lt. Commander Georg Johannes Ritter von Trapp is pleased. It has been a long road, with many false starts, but Austrian ingenuity has prevailed, as it always must. The Maria Theresia is ready to begin her mission.

It had all begun with discovery of a tunnel entrance in a cellar at Montreuil. An elderly Viennese gentleman who had been renting the house had discovered the tunnel some years earlier, when the great flood of 1910 had saturated the ground, flooding the new underground railway tunnels and the streets of Paris themselves. In Montreuil, water had filled the tunnel to bursting point, forcing open the tunnel entrance, and flooding Herr Gruber’s cellar and the entire ground floor of his house.

After the flooding had subsided, Herr Gruber, a retired surveyor, had decided to explore the tunnel, and had quickly realised that it was far longer and greater in scope than he had imagined. It travelled east, or, more precisely, east-south-east, and ended in the vicinity of the Place de la Nation. From the precision of its engineering, and the abruptness of its end, Gruber was inclined to think that it had been intended for military use – most probably an abortive attempt by the Prussian army to break the Siege of Paris back in 1870.

After France’s declaration of war on Austria-Hungary, Herr Gruber had returned to Vienna, where he had felt it his patriotic duty to apprise the Emperor of his discovery. Franz Josef had been interested indeed, seeing in this tunnel a way to quickly bring France to its knees, and had quickly involved Archduke Friedrich of Teschen and Field Marshall Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. An audacious plan had been made. The tunnel would be extended north east, underneath the Boulevard Voltaire until it reached the Place de la République, where it would split. One branch would tunnel north to end under the Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord, where mines would be placed to collapse the stations, disrupting troop movements to and from the Western front. A second branch would tunnel five kilometres west, to the end of the Champs Elysées. From here, Austrian troops, smuggled into the country in small groups while the tunnel was being constructed, would march on the Assemblée Nationale at the Palais Bourbon, demanding France’s instant surrender.

Everyone concurred that the psychological impact of Austrian troops arising out of the heart of Paris to march down their most famous avenue would be devastating in the extreme, and compel a quick surrender with little loss of life, to the benefit of both France and Austria. There are no true winners in a prolonged war, and destroying the infrastructure and agricultural capabilities of the country one is invading is self-defeating if one plans to benefit from the resources of this country in the future.

Such had been the plan. And at first, it had been successful. Enough construction was still underway on the city’s new underground railway system to mask any noise from the Austrians’ tunnelling activities, and the longer tunnel, towards the Champs Elysées, had been completed without incident.

Alas, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s best strategists had fallen afoul of the Canal Saint Martin. What began as a trickle of dampness soon became a flood of water into the newly-built tunnels, and the engineers were forced to retreat.

Faced with the need to continually pump water out of the tunnels, and the difficulties inherent in smuggling a large part of the Austrian army into France in disguise – particularly when these troops were increasingly wanted elsewhere – Teschen and von Hötzendorf were compelled to abandon their original plan.

But they did not abandon the tunnels.

u-boat-black-silhouette

January, 1915
Trocadéro, Paris

Paris has changed in the last forty years, and it has not changed. Haussmann’s great reimagining and rebuilding project has served the city well, and while the apartment buildings and boulevards are a little more weathered by time than they were when Léon last saw them, the effect is pleasing, bringing the new Paris a little more into harmony with the older churches and bridges that remain.

The skyline is another matter. Léon drops Michael’s hand to point at the horizon in horror. “What is that?”

Michael laughs. “Mr Eiffel’s tower, built for the World’s Fair in 1889. You are not alone in your opinion, but it will be popular one day. Come, I have something else to show you.”

Léon shakes his head. “I find myself glad to have only one eye with which to see that monstrosity. But lead on.”

Michael takes Léon on a tour of Paris which quickly devolves to an exploration of its new subterranean railway network. This is progress that Léon can readily approve.

“There was talk of a railway system in the Assembly, but I never thought to see it in my lifetime,” he marvels.

There is something in the quality of Michael’s stillness that causes Léon to look at him sharply.  He sighs. “You would hardly have gone to the trouble of fetching me from 1871 if I were still alive in this time, I suppose. Well. A man need not live into his seventies to do good work in his life. That is the secret of success, of course. To work, and always work. And it is good to see my Paris alive and thriving, even if she is still at war.”

Michael shakes his head a little, but does not speak. Léon looks around again, marvelling. The new station under the Place de la République is a perfect marriage of form and function, its walls covered with spotless white bricks, arching into a rounded ceiling. It reminds him a little of the sewers, which were likewise made with more artistry than their rather prosaic purpose might have indicated. It is a very French trait, he thinks, to build the most quotidien of structures with so much care and attention to aesthetics.

The station itself is silent, now, the last train having departed some twenty minutes ago. One electric light is still on, illuminating the bottom of the stairs.  The rest of the station is in shadow.  In the silence, Léon can hear a faint lapping of water.

He frowns. “We are not near the Seine, surely?”

Michael shook his head. “Not particularly, no.”

“Then why can I hear the sound of the river?”

u-boat-black-silhouette

January, 1915
Aboard the Maria Theresia
Somewhere under Paris

The Maria Theresia has been custom-built for this mission, and is designed to dive and thrive in a tunnel initially built for infantry movement. Unlike the standard U-boats, she is designed to spend prolonged periods beneath the surface, and is thus driven by an electric motor, rather than the diesel engines which require air to operate. She is also even smaller and narrower than the submarines on which von Trapp has trained. Her corridors are tall enough to walk in, but his head remains uncomfortably close to the ceiling, and there is barely room for two men to pass each other in the corridors. The effect is unpleasantly claustrophobic.

A submariner must become accustom to enclosed, narrow spaces, but von Trapp cannot truly say that this is one of his favourite things. Still, the Maria Theresia is a beautiful ship in her way, and a little discomfort in the service of one’s country is not to be regarded.

They are drifting in silent mode, now, hugging the floor of their artificial river beneath the Place de la République. Georg checks the sonar periodically, adjusting the speed of the propellers if they have drifted too far from their place. The crew has been ordered to rest, and most of the men are asleep in their bunks, though two are playing a quiet game of cards, and Midshipman Jowitt is reading D. Martin Luthers Werke: kritische Gesammtausgabe. The lad is only sixteen, going on seventeen, but he is sharp and interested in everything, despite his regrettable taste in theology.

The silence is more a matter of protocol than one of necessity – it is highly unlikely that the French are using sonar to look for them. It is highly unlikely that the French know they are there at all. Georg loves this part of submarine work – the feeling of moving silently through the water, unseen and unheard, a sleek, dangerous shark in a school of smaller, more colorful marine life. Not that there is any other marine life to be found in this tunnel.

It almost makes up for the low ceilings.

They have been in the tunnel for two days. Once the Maria Theresia was complete, built piece by smuggled piece in the cellar at Montreuil, Georg had deemed it safest to get her into the water as fast as possible. His commanders had been dubious. An early launch would leave the submariners incommunicado for a prolonged period; moreover, there was a very real concern that the submarine’s presence would be heard or detected by the French once she was in the tunnels.

Georg had dismissed these concerns. This is a short-range mission, and once the Maria Theresia is committed, there is unlikely to be room for further communication.  As for detection, Georg considers this both unlikely and unimportant. Even if the French realise that there is a submarine lurking beneath their city, what can they possibly do? How do they solve a problem like the Maria Theresia? No; Georg knows that his logic is correct. As long as the submarine remained in Montreuil, there was the possibility that she would be found and confiscated, but now she is launched, there is no way to reach her except through the tunnel, and France has no U-boats narrow enough to fit into the underground passage.

And now, it is simply a matter of waiting. At the appointed time, he will give the order and his men will set the propellers running. They will navigate north, first, to the Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord, sending their torpedo-launched mines directly upward, to explode the railway tracks leading out of Paris. And then, he and his crew will return to the secondary steering and navigation room at the stern, and run the Maria Theresia backward down the tunnel to the Place de la République, before changing ends again to sail west-northwest beneath the Boulevard Saint-Martin and the Boulevard Haussman, towards the Gare Saint Lazare. The tunnel does not pass directly beneath this station, as it was not one of the initial strategic targets, and so the secondary torpedo port is angled upward and to starboard.

It is George’s opinion that this second strike is unlikely to be effective, given the angle and the distance, but apparently von Teschen has confidence in confidence alone, rather than in physics or the experience of a submariner. However, orders are orders. And the disruption of the first two stations will be more than sufficient to justify their mission.

u-boat-black-silhouette

January, 1915
République Station, Paris

“A submarine under Paris.” Léon shook his head. “That is preposterous.”

“More preposterous than time travel?” Michael’s gaze was dry.

“I rather doubt that you transported me here by human, mechanical means. Or are you telling me that the Austro-Hungarians are also assisted by divine intervention?”

Michael merely smiled and said nothing.

Léon sighed. “In any case, it hardly matters what I believe.  The trick will be convincing the government that I’m not a madman.” He began to pace the length of the platform, thinking aloud. Michael kept pace beside him.

“Of course, even if I did manage to convince them, I’m not sure what they could do about it. Even if we found the source of the river, and had the ships to navigate it, a naval battle under the city would probably do as much damage to Paris as whatever the Austrians are planning.”

“This is true.”

Léon grimaced. “We need something subtler than that.” He looked around the station, the arched walls reminding him once again of his tour of the sewers a few years earlier. The chief engineer himself, Eugène Belgrand, had led the tour, explaining to the visiting dignitaries the challenges of ensuring that they would drain properly, and not release foul waters back into the Seine in times of flood. Léon had not followed his explanation, but the more mathematically-inclined among his peers had seemed impressed.

Drainage… yes, of course. Léon smiled. “The best option, if we could manage it, would be to drain the tunnel. Ground the ship, then wait at the exit to take them prisoner when they walk out.”

Michael nodded in approval. “An excellent plan. Where do you propose to start?”

Léon felt his shoulders slump. He was a statesman, not an engineer. “We need Belgrand,” he said. “Or someone like him. An engineer. Someone who can work out where the water needs to go, and how to get it there fast enough to strand the submarine without flooding everything else. I have no idea who that would be right now, though.  Not Belgrand.  He’d be a hundred by now, if he’s a day…” He thought about it. “Actually, our real issue will be time. If the Austrians are already in the tunnel, then they must be expecting to strike within the next few days. We’re never going to be fast enough to prevent them.”

Michael smiled, his eyes like blue flames in the dimness of the station. “Oh, I think I can help with that.”

u-boat-black-silhouette

January, 1915
Aboard the Maria Theresia
Somewhere beneath the Boulevard de Magenta

The hour has come. Their course has been set, and they are on their way north. Georg finds himself filled with an almost ferocious glee now that he is on the cusp of his first real action in this war.   To be the man in charge of the most audacious invasion that Paris has ever faced!  An invasion, too, that will cement Austria’s supremacy as a naval power, which will save countless lives – French as well as Austrian, perhaps, since his work will disrupt travel to the front.

It is always an honour to serve one’s motherland, but to serve in such an exciting time, in such a unique action is more than an honour – it is a gift. Somewhere in his youth or childhood, he must have done something good.

Georg pulls down the lever to boost the propellor speed, and feels the vibration in his feet as the Maria Theresia surges forward. She is not a fast ship, but in these narrow quarters, that is an advantage. They will be under the Gare de l’Est soon enough. He suppresses a wince as the ship scrapes the tunnel wall again. Navigation Officer Steiner has a deft hand with the gyrocompass, but navigation in a passage this narrow would be difficult enough even above the surface. The fact that they found and entered the northern branch of the tunnel on their first attempt is a testament to the skill of both the cartographer and Steiner.

Austria has reason to be proud of her navy, and Georg hopes to make her even prouder.

u-boat-black-silhouette

August, 1869
Avenue Rapp, Paris

Eugène Belgrand lives alone in a new apartment in the 7th arondissement. The servant woman who answers the door seems mildly surprised at their visit, but is willing enough to show them up to the great man’s study.

Belgrand welcomes them, and sends the servant woman for refreshments, before turning to them with a diffident smile. “Would you mind waiting just a moment? I don’t want to lose my train of thought.”  He turns back to his writing desk without waiting for a reply.

Léon is a little taken aback, but he nods, and takes the seat he is offered. For a few minutes, the room is silent apart from the sound of a pen scratching its way across a page. At last, Belgrand wipes his pen, reads over what he has written, then turns to them with a satisfied sigh.

“My apologies, citizens. I am writing a history of the Paris Basin from prehistoric times, and my publisher had a few questions he wished me to address before tomorrow. Now, I am at your disposal – what may I do for the great champion of the Republic and his friend?”

There is a note of sarcasm in the man’s voice, but this is not the time to quibble. “In fact, we require your advice, on behalf of that very Republic, and on a matter of some secrecy.”

Belgrand shakes his head. “Then I must decline to serve you. I do not involve myself in politics. The physical structure of Paris is complex enough for me.”

Léon nods. “I understand,” he he begins, though he truly does not. “But this is a matter of France’s very survival. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is planning to invade us, and we need to prevent this at all costs.”

Belgrand shakes his head once more. “I am an engineer, not a strategist. I fear that you have come to the wrong place.”

“They plan to invade us from under the ground. And if anyone is an expert on what lies beneath Paris, it is surely you.”

Belgrand blinks. “I see. That is very singular. I wonder, where did you get this information?”

Léon looks at Michael, who shrugs. “I can take him forward, if that would help, but he still won’t have time to drain the tunnel.”

“Not then, certainly,” agrees Léon. He has been thinking about this one.

“Take me forward?” Belgrand narrows his eyes. “Wait – drain the tunnel? Surely not my sewers?”

Léon smiles. “No, not your sewers. Which are a work of art, by the way. This is a new tunnel which the Austrians have built under the city, the better to invade.”

“I should think that draining it would be the last thing you would want to do, in that case.”

“They have a submarine.”

Belgrand sits back in his chair. “They do, do they? And what, precisely, do they plan to do with it? And before you spin your tale any finer, allow me to inform you that I reviewed the specifications for Plongeur, and am well aware of its capabilities. There is no way it could navigate a tunnel, and I don’t imagine that the Austrians are so much further advanced than we are. But by all means, continue.”

Michael smiles a little. “M. Gambetta, I think M. Belgrand just implied that your story is preposterous.”

Léon feels himself flushing, though he can hardly blame Belgrand for saying precisely what he himself thought. He turns to Michael. “If you please?”

And a moment later, that excrescence of a tower is on the horizon again.

u-boat-black-silhouette

January, 1915
Aboard the Maria Theresia
Somewhere beneath the Boulevard de Magenta

Their destination is only a few hundred metres away now, and Georg has accustomed himself to the frequent scraping of the submarine against the tunnel wall. This part of the tunnel was not quite finished when the water began to flood in, and is accordingly narrower than other sections.

Beside him, Midshipman Jowitt is frowning at the pressure gauge. “Something wrong, Midshipman?” he asks.

The boy comes to attention, his eyes worried. “Not sure, sir. I’m getting an odd reading on this gauge. It looks a little… low?”

Georg feels his brows raise. The Maria Theresia is only a few days old, and her equipment new. Then again, Jowitt is fairly new himself, and probably more familiar with undersea pressure readings, which are much higher than what he is likely to get here. Perhaps he just needs someone older and wiser showing him what to do… “Let me take a look at it.”

u-boat-black-silhouette

January, 1915
République Station, Paris

Eugène Belgrand is philosophical about the tower and delighted by the underground railway system. Léon is not sure that his eager agreement to help find a way to stop the Austrian invasion is about patriotism so much as it is about an almost bodily revulsion at the idea of destroying such a beautiful piece of infrastructure.

It hardly matters either way. He agrees to help.

u-boat-black-silhouette

January, 1915
Aboard the Maria Theresia,
Somewhere beneath the Boulevard de Magenta

Either the pressure gauge isn’t working, or they aren’t fully submerged any more. Georg is inclined to believe that it is the former, but unfortunately, the latter possibility cannot be entirely dismissed. It also cannot be checked.

If he has been issued with faulty equipment, Georg vows to himself that he will climb every mountain and ford every stream until he finds the man responsible.

The submarine scrapes against the wall of the tunnel again.  Is it Georg’s imagination, or is the submarine meeting less resistance?

u-boat-black-silhouette

August, 1869
Avenue Rapp, Paris

“The ideal option, of course, would be to somehow connect their tunnel to the sewers. One wouldn’t need a particularly large hole – once the water started flowing through it, it would be bound to increase in size anyway. Perhaps a weakness in their tunnel wall so that the vibrations of the engine would shatter it?” Belgrand scribbles some equations, then crosses them out.

“Do we know precisely where their tunnel is? If you want me to build the trap now, alongside my sewers, we need to make sure we aren’t just building part of their tunnel for them.”

“The tunnel seems to be following the path of the streets above, much as the railway does,” commented Michael.

“And as my sewers do. Good – that will be quite convenient. Perhaps if we created a cave or a tunnel right next to where theirs will be, so that the wall is quite thin… they will have reinforced it, of course, but probably not enough, if they expect the ground around them to be solid.  And then pipes at intervals, leading to the sewers.  We want to conduct the water through as efficiently as possible, rather than waterlogging the ground and potentially destabilising the railways above…”

Léon frowned. “Would the vibrations of the submarine really be enough to shatter the tunnel wall? I can’t imagine that the Austrians would build so poorly as that.”

Belgrand shrugged. “Perhaps not in themselves. Almost certainly not, in fact. But if at any point the submarine were to scrape against the wall – and I think this will be almost inevitable, if they have a ship in a small tunnel, with the limitations on navigation intrinsic to being underwater and in the dark – that would certainly weaken it further. And if they attempt to use a spar torpedo, or anything else, the impact should bring the whole thing down in a matter of moments.”

“But the damage would still be done.”

Belgrand shook his head. “If my successors build a railway station that cannot stand a single torpedo, then Paris deserves to fall.”

Léon blinked, and made a mental note to speak to whichever engineer ended up being charged with the railway project.

Belgrand smiled a little at his expression. “I assure you, they will do better than that. And so will I. The tunnel will be drained, and the ship stranded, have no feaer. I only wish I were likely to live to see it.”

He went back to his equations. After a while, Michael beckoned to Léon, and they left.

Léon sighed. “I wish I were likely to see it, too.”

u-boat-black-silhouette

 

January, 1915
Aboard the Maria Theresia
Somewhere beneath the Boulevard de Magenta

They are less than a hundred metres from the Gare de l’Est, by Steiner’s reckoning, when the ship shudders to a halt with an ugly scraping sound from below.

“What in heaven’s name was that?” Georg turns to look at Steiner, who shakes his head.

“We’re on course, sir.”

Georg can feel the engines working, and the ship shuddering under him. He pulls the lever back up, bringing the Maria Theresia to rest. He has a nasty feeling that they have run aground.  But how?

“Captain von Trapp, sir,” Midshipman Jowitt is looking worried again.

“Yes Midshipman?”

“The pressure gauge is reading zero, sir.”

Georg frowns, and strides over to take a look. It is. What the hell is going on? Evidently, the water level has dropped below the level of the submarine’s propellers. Have they been discovered, then? It seemed unlikely – even if they had, how would the French have been able to empty the tunnel of water so fast?

He turns to Steiner. “Officer Steiner. How far are we from our target?”

Steiner checks his instruments again. “Approximately 80 metres, sir.”

The intent was always to fire the torpedos directly upwards. Georg looks at his Torpedo Officer. “Can you adjust the angle to hit the station from here?”

“I don’t think so, sir.”

Georg doesn’t think so, either. What a damnable waste. Borrowing the map from Steiner, he checks their location. They appear to be more or less directly below a park. Hardly a strategic target.

And then there is the little matter of being trapped underground in a ship that can no longer move.  At least they are no longer in danger of running out of oxygen, but their situation is nonetheless a perilous one.

Georg closes his eyes for a moment, thinking. Victory is no longer a possibility; the priority now must be to get his men safely back to Montreuil.  The Maria Theresia has sliding doors, thankfully; even if they are close to the wall of the tunnel, it should be possible for some of the slighter men to get out. If worst comes to worst, and they can’t move the ship, they can go for help, and hopefully send others back to rescue them.

Always assuming the water does not flood back into the tunnel…

But there is nothing to be gained from worrying about that.  He can feel his mind racing, and mentally runs through a list of his favourite things, then breathes out a long breath.  Right.  So the first question is whether they really are grounded.  And the only real way to be certain is to open the airlock.  Georg eyes the pressure gauge again. Good Austrian workmanship, that. Unlikely to fail on its first outing.  And there is the fact that the propellers will not rotate properly.

Very well then.

“Midshipman Jowitt.”

“Yes sir?”

“Please summon the rest of the crew to the front deck.”

“Yes, sir.” The young man dashed out into the corridor.

Steiner looks at Georg. “You’re going to give the order to abandon ship?”

Georg nodded. “Can you think of any reason not to?”

The Navigation Officer purses his lips in thought, then shakes his head. “No. We’re grounded alright. And if the water is too low for the propellers, it’s low enough to wade through. We’re headed back to Montreuil, then?”

“Hmm… I don’t think so. It’s too far – a long, long way to run if the water starts to rise again. I thought we’d head west where the tunnel branches. The original plan called for an invasion via the Champs Elysées, and I know they’d built the stairs before everything flooded. I believe there is a trapdoor. We might need a crowbar, though.”

Steiner nodded. “We might need a few things. Civvies, for example, if we are headed for the heart of Paris. Or the first good French citizen who sees us will make an arrest.”

Georg hadn’t brought civvies with him, and he doubted the other men had either. “Damn.” He thought about it. “We could use the curtains from the sleeping berths to make cloaks of some kind, I suppose.”

“If you want us to look ridiculous, certainly.”

Georg smiled a little grimly. “Actually, that might work to our advantage. We can disguise ourselves as a troupe of entertainers – singers, perhaps – playing the part of stupid Austrian soldiers lost in Paris. The French will love that. You can sing that ridiculous yodelling song about goat-herds, and fulfill every cliché they have ever imagined about us. We might even make enough for our train fare back to Montreuil.”

Steiner shot him a murderous glare. “That is a terrible idea.”

“Do you have a better one?”

“Not currently.”

Now there was a shame.

“Look on the bright side. We will be entirely safe from capture.  The French will never imagine that Austrian soldiers would make such fools of themselves.”

“Nor will our commanding officers.”

Georg sighed. “The plan has failed, through no fault of anyone on this ship. If we can bring everyone home safely, losing no more than our dignity in the process, we will have done our duty. Nobody can ask more of us than that.  And if it comes down to it, any criticism will fall to me, not to you.  They are my orders, and I will take full responsibility for the consequences.”  He sighed, bidding farewell to visions of a glorious victory.

“Speaking of responsibility, let’s get everyone off this ship.”

u-boat-black-silhouette

May, 1871
San Sebastián, Spain

Léon stares out to sea. The tide has turned, and the fishing boats are on their way in to shore, navigating around the island with the ease of sailors born on this bay.

Michael stands beside him, watching the boats with a smile.

“Will Belgrand’s plan work?” asks Léon, quietly.

Michael smiles. “Yes. Paris will be saved. In fact, Paris will never know how close it came to being invaded. The Austrians will creep out of Paris that very night, and flee back home, taking all their plans with them.”

Léon nods. “What of the tunnel? Surely it will pose a temptation as long as it remains there?”

Michael shakes his head. “Your countrymen will find it in 1917. The longer part of the tunnel, from Montreuil to the end of the Champs Elysées, actually falls pretty close to the proposed route 9 of the underground railway route. They will start converting it after the war.”

“So no harm was done?”

“None at all. It will be as though the invasion never happened.”

Léon could live with that.

u-boat-black-silhouette

 

January, 1915
Beneath the Arc de Triomphe

The curtain cloaks do look ridiculous, and navy uniform shoes are not designed for traipsing long distances through muddy tunnels. Fortunately, one of the engineers has managed to rig out portable lanterns using candles and glass jars from the Maria Theresia’s supplies, so at least they have only mud and water to contend with, rather than mud, water and total darkness. Even more fortunately, the tunnels have shown no signs of renewed flooding – in fact, the waters have slowly sunk from  knee deep, to ankle deep, to mere sludge while they have been trudging their way westward.

Still, it is a damp and depressing walk, and Georg finds himself wishing for a drink. A hot one. Tea, perhaps, with jam and bread. And a good slug of schnapps to wash it down.  He is very glad to see the ray of sunlight shining through the edges of the trapdoor under the Place de l’Étoile like a drop of golden sun.

Georg leads his men silently up the ladder into the late afternoon light. By some miracle, their appearance goes unobserved. Midshipman Jowitt begins to sing, in a clear tenor voice, a folksong about a little white alpine flower, and the other men join in, variously tuneful.

All safe.

Well, all but one. It goes against the grain to abandon a perfectly good ship to the French, even if they probably don’t know that she is there. The Maria Theresia had done her best, after all, only to be betrayed at the last by drainage. “Farewell,” Georg murmurs to her under his breath, as he leans down to shut the trapdoor behind him. No – that isn’t quite right. He might still live to reclaim her. “Auf wiedersehen,” he corrects himself. And then, “Good night.” That, at least, is indisputably accurate.

He turns, and adds his voice to the chorus as his men begin a new song.

u-boat-black-silhouette

June 1871
San Sebastián, Spain

Léon Gambetta’s bags are packed. In the morning, he will begin the long journey back to Paris, and to politics. If France is ever to remain free and independent, she needs a man who can lead them on a moderate course – neither a commune nor another Empire, but a republic that serves everyone, rather than satisfying the few while the many rebel.  Léon believes that he is that man.  He has a vision of a France united and peaceful, of a free press that will keep men of all classes informed of the issues that affect them, of an educational and bureaucratic system that will reward men of ability, regardless of class or political leanings.

France cannot afford another century of conflict and revolution. She cannot afford another decade of it.

In his waistcoat pocket, there is a letter from his friend, Dr Fieuzal, asking whether it is true that he is refusing to stand for election. Léon has not had time to answer it, but now he sits down at his writing desk, and takes out a sheet of paper. The letter will, perhaps, travel in the same carriages, the same trains that he does. But the post is capable of strange efficiencies – perhaps it will arrive before him.   He takes up his pen.

“…There is no truth in the rumours being spread that I am refusing to stand for election in Paris. No. I accept, to the contrary, with pride and gratitude the Parisians’ votes, if they would do me the honor of choosing me. I am prepared…”

u-boat-black-silhouette

April 1915
Aboard the SM U-5
Somewhere off the coast of Italy

The hull is alive with the sound of music and laughter, and Lt. Commander Georg von Trapp smiles a little as he composes his report. Nobody had expected the enemy ship to sink so quickly, and while the loss of life is regrettable, duty is duty, and it is necessary to assert Austrian control of the region. He had been glad to see the lifeboats, go out, and trusts that most of the crew will be saved.

He dips his pen into the inkwell, and begins to write:

“A French cruiser, with covered lights, was sighted at midnight twenty miles southeast of Cape di Leuca. The submarine from a distance of 500 metres fired a torpedo at her stern and followed it with a second torpedo amidship. Both hit. From the heeling of the cruiser I concluded that a third torpedo was not necessary.

“Nine minutes after the second shot, the ship disappeared. Despite the short interval, the French lowered five boats, which are believed to have been saved, as the sea was calm.

“I regret that I was unable to assist in the rescue work.

“The cruiser was identified as the Léon Gambetta.”

Postcard of the SM U-5

Postcard of the SM U-5

station

Léon Gambetta, Gambetta-class ships, and Georg von Trapp

Gambetta station is situated in the 20th arondissement, not far from Père Lachaise cemetary.  It opened in 1905 as part of line 3, and now also serves as the southern terminus of line 3 bis.  Gambetta is named for the Avenue Gambetta, which in turn is named for Léon Gambetta (1838-1882), a French statesman who played an important role in the foundation of the Third Republic.

Léon Gambetta first came to the public eye in 1868, after his defense of journalist Délescluze, which he took as an opportunity to attack Napoleon III’s government.  He was elected to the Assembly in the following year, where he became known as a brilliant orator, a fervent anti-Imperialist and a defender of the lower classes.  When Prussia attacked France in 1870, he proclaimed the deposition of the Emperor and the birth of a new Republic, with himself as one of its chief ministers.  He was vigorous in his defense of France, leaving Paris by hot air balloon during the siege to raise armies in regional France, in order to relieve the capital.  Alas, this was not sufficient to turn back the Prussians.  After France’s surrender, Gambetta retired briefly to San Sebastián, but returned to public life after six months, again championing the republic, but taking a more moderate stance.  He was Prime Minister for 66 days in 1881-1882, and died a few months later of stomach cancer, aged only 44.

You might reasonably ask what this has to do with submarines and particularly The Sound of Music.  Well, Gambetta’s defense of France during the Franco-Prussian war caused him to be remembered and memorialised in a variety of ways, and in 1901, a class of armoured cruisers was named after him.  The first ship of this class, the Léon Gambetta, was sunk on April 27th, 1915, by the Austrian submarine U-5, under the command of none other than Lt. Commander Georg Ludwig Ritter von Trapp.  And yes, that really is the same Captain von Trapp who married Maria Kutschera, and whose children became the von Trapp Family Singers.  Once I realised this, there was no possible way I was not going to put The Sound of Music into this story.  Some things are inevitable.  And besides, both Léon Gambetta himself, and the ship named after him fought valiantly, and unsuccessfully, for France.  I thought they deserved a victory.

It is, I am sure, painfully evident that I know little about submarines and less about engineering (but way too many Sound of Music lyrics).  I apologies for any errors, and trust that they are not so egregious as to make the story unreadable.  For the purposes of this story, I designed my own submarine to travel along the tunnels.  Since I doubted that there would be turning room in the tunnels, I gave it steering and navigation facilities at each end.  I also gave it a battery-operated electric engine, which is what U-boats used when submerged (it turns out that they did not spend a lot of time fully submerged, and mostly used diesel engines when travelling on the surface).  I did not give it sonar, even though this probably means that navigation in a tunnel would have been impossible.  Submarines in World War 1 did not use active sonar, because it made them too easy to find, and did not use passive sonar because it hadn’t been invented yet.  And despite all the other highly improbable goings on in this story, it felt like cheating to give them futuristic submarine technology.  Instead, I gave them Navigation Officer Steiner, who I suspect is a mathematical and navigational genius.

The letter which Gambetta writes at the end of his story is a quote from a real letter he wrote to his friend and colleague, Fieuzal, and the quote about the secret to success being work and always work is also from him. von Trapp’s report is taken directly from an article in the New York Times from May 1915, claiming to be his personal account of how he sank the Léon Gambetta.  I added the last sentence to make it clear what he was sinking and why I was bothering to mention it, but the rest is verbatim.

The photograph of the submarine is from a pre-WW1 postcard depicting the U-5 class of submarine.  It is available on WikiCommons.  The silhouette of the U-boat is a free vector image from Supercoloring.com.

next

Père Lachaise
fleur3left Gambetta
fleur3right Porte de Bagnolet
3b
fleur3bleft Gambetta
fleur3bright Porte de Lilas

2 thoughts on “Gambetta

  1. Kathleen Jowitt

    This was a huge amount of fun – thank you! I was particularly charmed by the detail of Gambetta leaving Paris by hot air balloon, and even more so when I found out it was true.

    And no, I don’t hate The Sound of Music, though suspect I’ll have to root out a colony of earworms fairly soon. 😉

    Reply
    1. Catherine Post author

      Yay! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and yes, the balloon thing is super cool, isn’t it? Apparently, the French used hot air balloons carrying baskets of homing pigeons to send messages out of Paris and get them back while they were under siege – only the balloons didn’t always go where they needed to go, so it was only a semi-successful strategy.

      And I apologise for the ear worms. If it’s any comfort, I share them. And I just finished watching The Sound of Music, which is only going to reinforce them (though it took me nearly halfway into the film before I could see von Trapp without giggling).

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *